The dire warnings of climate change experts are coming true. Flooding caused by torrential rainfall in the past two weeks has claimed close to 500 lives and left thousands homeless in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Tens of thousands of people in Durban are, reportedly, without water and there are concerns of an infectious disease outbreak. Authorities fear the toll could climb much higher.
Intense rainfall in spring and early summer is part of South Africa’s weather pattern. In April-May, a low-pressure system, stemming from the westerly trough systems of cold air, develops south of the country and often results in inclement weather. In 2019, flash floods claimed 85 lives in Durban. But the intensity of the downpour this year was unprecedented. Some parts of KwaZulu-Natal experienced a year’s rainfall in less than 36 hours. The weather vagary is straight out of classical climate change literature: Warmer seas push large amounts of moisture into the atmosphere leading to intense spells of rainfall. But that’s one part of the story. The deluge’s catastrophic turn has much to do with a failing that’s common to several parts of the world, including India: Durban’s drainage system that has, at best, seen cosmetic improvements in more than a century, was ill-equipped to handle the relentless downpour.
As in climate disasters in most parts of the world, the poor in South Africa have borne the brunt. Durban is a city of migrants, and large numbers live in shacks, locally called “informal settlements”. These houses — an Apartheid-era legacy of the poor living in low-lying areas — were the first to be swept away by the flash floods. Experts have sounded the red alert for more extreme weather events in South Africa in the coming years. As in other parts of the world, the way forward lies in improving the accuracy of warning systems, and building the resilience of people, especially the poor. This should be the focus of adaptation strategies.